Stepping Back

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him

Let’s start by saying that I’m using the AA version of the Steps, hence powerless over alcohol.  There are roughly forty other programs that use the Steps, usually substituting their own particular issue for the word alcohol.  Al-Anon … for families of alcoholics … use the same steps, changing only one word in Step 12.   Overeaters Anonymous says food.   And on it goes.  The most sweeping statement of powerlessness comes from Codependents Anonymous … powerless over people, places and things.

I don’t know anyone who was walking down the street and said, I think I’ll join a 12 Step program.  Most of us came to the Steps in some degree of desperation, which is why being told we were powerless didn’t drive us right out the door again.  We may not have admitted powerlessness but we’d felt helpless, which comes pretty close.  Critics of 12 Step programs often ask, Wouldn’t it be better to tell people they have power over their addictions or their obsession with their loved one’s addictions?   Except that, in my opinion, if they had power over them, they wouldn’t be addictions.  Because I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not powerless over alcohol for my own use but I would be powerless over someone else’s addiction.   Beyond that, I come down somewhere short of Codependents Anonymous’ people, places and things … but not that short.   There are a multitude of things I can’t change in this world, the most important of which is other people.  Oh, yeah, I can make some people do things they don’t want to do but I can’t change them unless they want to change.   There is so much freedom in knowing that.  If a friend is driving me crazy, I can accept him, demote him to acquaintance or end the relationship.   After trying to understand what it meant to have an unmanageable life for years, I read this: the unmanageable part of our lives is the time we waste on things we cannot change.  I waste a lot less time these days.  Nowhere do the Steps say we’re powerless over ourselves … in fact, Al-Anon’s Understanding ourselves finishes with this statement: The emphasis begins to be lifted from the alcoholic and placed where we do have some power – over our own lives.*

Coming to believe in Step 2 was where I hit my first 12 Step wall.  I watched people who had a solid belief in God cruise right through the first three steps while I wondered how I’d ever move on.  People told me Fire your God and hire mine, but I had no one to fire.  They said, make the group your Higher Power.  Someone even said, Make the doorknob your Higher Power.  Critics make a big deal of this sort of thing … How can you make any progress with a doorknob as your Higher Power?   Of course, if they were listening instead of trying to be critical, they’d have heard that it’s a temporary solution until you find your own Higher Power.  Those who came in with Higher Powers didn’t need such tactics.  The point was to believe that I wasn’t the Higher Power.  In the end, my sponsor asked me to write the characteristics I’d want in a benevolent God on a piece of notebook paper.  When I was done, he told me to sign it.   That’s your God, he said.  For now.  I didn’t really believe him but if let me move on, then it was good enough for me.  Can’t fall behind, ya know.   Oh, yeah, there’s the sanity bit.  A well-known 12 Step critic begins his attack on the 2nd Step with this: I’m not insane, so I don’t need to be restored to sanity.  He wouldn’t have had to listen very hard to hear that no one is talking about clinical insanity**.  All of us do crazy things, particularly those of the doing-the-same-thing-over-and-over-and-expecting-a-different-result variety.   Almost no one believes the Steps are effective against true mental illness, but they can reduce the daily craziness of our behavior.  I know.

So, I came to Step 3 with a God in my notebook that I really didn’t believe in.  Now, I was supposed to make a decision to turn my life and will over to that God.  As we understand Him, my fellows were quick to point out.  I asked, What if I don’t understand my God?  That’s OK, my sponsor said, just make the decision.  To do what?  Turn my life and will over to the care of God.  Yikes.  That sounds like a big deal, especially the God’s will part.  I decided to interpret it as this: turning my life over means accepting the things that happen around me, whether I like them or not;  and turning my will over means doing my best to do what’s right in each situation.  That, I could do.  So, I was ready to move on to the next four steps where I got to take action instead of admitting, coming to believe and deciding.  I felt vaguely like I had faked Steps 2 and 3 but my sponsor said I was fine.

Looking back through 19 years of working the Steps, I don’t believe the first three Steps were the God Steps for me.   They were the Steps where I admitted that I was not in control and to the possibility that there was a Higher Power that was.   My friend Truck calls it being Right-Sized in the Universe, knowing what we can control and can’t control.  I didn’t know it then but I was ready to move on to the 4th Step.  Which I’ll talk about next Sunday.

*Understanding Ourselves and Alcoholism (p-48), Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.,Virginia, 1979,2003.

** In fact, if you take a look at the pages and pages he’s obsessively put together to attack a program he doesn’t believe in, you might question his claim of sanity.

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8 Comments on “Stepping Back”

  1. Jeni Hill Ertmer Says:

    Thank you Bud, for putting into words way better than many people have tried to do exactly what the 12-step program is/does! The 2nd Step was a walk in the park for me whereas Step 3 was a rough one -to turn things over! But once that one came into “working” order, things did move relatively smoothly after that! And this can be utilized to help in coping with things as simple as “Gee, it’s a gray, rainy day” -knowing full well there’s not diddly-squat we can do about changing the weather but we can do something about changing how we think about it and how we cope with it when it doesn’t suit our fancy! So glad you are writing about the steps right now as I am in the midst of some control issues over which I know I have no control and am trying to turn it all over (and off in my mind then too -to give my poor over-taxed brain some respite) but it’s being obstinate with me. It will come, just not fast enough for me right now! Thanks too for the explanation of the insanity issue. No, I wasn’t of a clinical variety (of insanity) when I came to Al-Anon but remembering back, I think I was pretty darned near over the border line, for sure! Anxiety can be every bit as wicked to deal with as plain depression of gee, insanity! It all plays together to “drive us crazy” doesn’t it?

    • oldereyes Says:

      Sometimes, writing about the steps, I’m afraid I make it sound too easy or like at some point it becomes a done deal. of course, it isn’t and doesn’t. We are programmed, I think, to always try to take control and it takes effort to follow the discipline of the steps.


  2. In my place at the moment, this was a good post for me to read. Not really even from a Higher Power-centered perspective, but from the perspective of that which we cannot control. It’s one of those things we all know in our heads. Somehow we have to redefine it to understand it. I think you might have helped me today. Thank you.

    • oldereyes Says:

      I’m glad I was able to help. I still have concerns that writing tis is an ego trip, so it’s good to know someone finds it helpful or at least interesting.

  3. territerri Says:

    I’ve read books and articles about alcoholics, families of alcoholics, etc. I’ve read enough to be vaguely familiar with the 12-step programs and have learned more by reading things you’ve written. But I don’t think I’ve ever realized what a powerful change it must make in one’s life to accept that we’re not in control of others in our lives. And it makes me think that many of us – whether or not we’re involved in some way with alcoholism or other forms of addiction – would benefit from going through the program. How much of our daily stress comes from people and situations we cannot change?

  4. oldereyes Says:

    I’ve kiddingly said, “If you don’t have an alcoholic, find yourself one so you can work the program. I don’t know if you can just work it without a “cause.” Codependents anonymous comes closest to being for everyone but it’s my experience meetings tend to be mostly about broken romances. Melody Beattie’s The Twelve Steps for Codependents is a good reference.

  5. undividing Says:

    Wow, what a fantastic post! I really love hearing about how you’ve found a way to practice faith alongside your doubts and questions. I have definitely been struggling with these issues, but the way you presented things here…I think I could make some progress in my faith by starting where you did. I like the idea of writing down what a benevolent god would look like, and simply recognizing the truth that I am not in control of everything, that I am not the higher power. Really helpful Bud, thank you for writing out your thoughts!!


  6. […] recent blog post by my friend Bud got me thinking. In it he talks about his experience with working a 12 Step […]


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